Creativity, Science, and Writing

Last week’s post about the DC Science Café‘s endeavor to foster meaningful discussion between scientists and non-experts explored the challenges in finding a common language between two populations with differing relationships with the same words and phrases. This week’s post, brought to you by Ned Prutzer, builds off this theme by examining the substantial gains that some writers and researchers have found in trying to inhabit these junctures, and extrapolating what the language that heals the false rift between the sciences and arts might look like.

Ned Prutzer

Ned Prutzer

I met Ned at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House at the University of Maryland. Ned is now a Communications and Media PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where serves as a Seeing Systems Fellow in a pilot fellowship program supported by the INTERSECT initiative. His research focuses on new media and cultural memory in relation to conceptualizations of knowledge, art and resistance.

When I attended a Q&A session featuring renowned poet Arthur Sze, he asked us, as a writing exercise, to generate a list of five of our favorite words. His next step was to conjure up another five-word list – this time, comprised of words associated with a hobby or skill of ours. Once the lists were finalized, he asked us to write a poem containing all of the words we included.

The beauty of the exercise lies in how it engages divergent thinking. It confronts us with the challenge of finding ties between different images and practices. As writers, we accept this challenge constantly. We cherish the capability to make meaning out of the happenstance, to elevate the power of a simple image into a telling artifact, and to create realities from fragments, worlds out of words. This makes creativity an alluring and mysterious process.

To ruminate on creativity and writing successfully, both scientific and artistic perspectives are helpful. I find myself doing this often in my own writing, whether I borrow from the language of coding to discuss world-making in a broad sense, from the language of network science to decipher our relations with others and our surroundings, or from the language of neuroscience to analyze the cerebral action of writing.

I have been especially ruminating on this stance in re-reading Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. The narrator, whose gender and name are concealed, recounts an affair with a married woman, Louise. Louise is later revealed to have cancer and the narrator leaves her, hoping Louise will return to her husband, a renowned cancer researcher. Following the affair, the narrator enters a reclusive phase studying anatomy to learn about the cancerous body in an unconventional attempt to remain close to Louise. The narrator assumes a clinical language to deconstruct the body and create what s/he describes as a love poem to Louise.

The undertaking critiques the notion that a body can be described solely through the interaction of its components yet incorporates that very mechanical language to create a more accommodating descriptive vocabulary. The narrator deconstructs the human anatomy in order to deconstruct the operations of an abstraction, an ideology – love. Thus, the narrator seizes the poetry of the scientific to achieve a creative mode of representation.

Similarly, two of my favorite books, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind and Alice W. Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, show why fusing the scientific with the poetic is productive and aesthetic. Both are eloquent, autobiographical explorations into creativity through psychological case studies. While the former focuses on bipolar disorder, the latter, among other afflictions, investigates hypergraphia, a disorder compelling the afflicted to write compulsively. In these explorations, Jamison and Flaherty borrow from the language of their clinical expertise to analyze creativity.

In dissecting the creative mind, one learns that creativity is in part a complex neural network. Flaherty traces the interaction of such neural regions as the limbic system (the seat of emotion); the temporal lobe (the seat of processing sensory input); the hippocampus (the seat of memories); and the basal ganglia (the seat of motivation). Several neurotransmitters (notably, norepinephrine, dopamine, and endogenous opiates) also provide a sense of motivation and the creative rush with which we are all familiar.

Creativity scholar Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes about this sense of rush, which he refers to as “flow.” As Howard Gardner defines Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow in Creating Minds, “[i]n one sense, those ‘in flow’ . . . feel that they have been fully alive, totally realized, and involved in a ‘peak experience.’ Individuals who regularly engage in creative activities often report that they seek such states” (pp. 25-26).

Here is where we return to the realm of abstraction in detailing the anatomy of creativity. Creativity and flow cannot be defined solely as the product of an intricate configuration of stimulated neural regions. There is an undeniable poetry and spirituality involved that requires a more holistic sense of the individual and the social networks in which he or she is embedded. Creativity, after all, is a networked enterprise, whether one is looking at its neurological underpinnings or the environments and social groups through which an artist’s work is fully realized.

Investigating creativity requires a fusion of perspectives that may seem disparate to some, but such fusions can supply powerful hybrid vocabularies encouraging new insights. However, inhabiting these junctions of deeply developed languages and cultures of thought remains precarious. C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures is infamous for playing into a popular misconception surrounding the humanities and sciences in purporting an inherent and impassable chasm between the two. We can and must respond to this false dichotomy, but it will require our most creative and carefully crafted language. It could even begin as a playful exercise with two lists of words; a poet making a small contribution to demystify creativity through a simple intervention and innovation of language, inviting us to re-imagine the scientific.

More of Ned’s writing about the intersection of technology, cultural values, and social networks (on- and off-line) have been published by gnovis, an online academic journal at Georgetown University, available at

Science and Revelation: The DC Science Café

Ivan Amato

“The scientific story, to me, is the greatest story ever told,” Ivan Amato says to me. “It’s a revelatory thing, scientific discovery.” Ivan isn’t just talking about a scientist’s “eureka” moment, but rather the equally important discoveries of participants at the DC Science Café. To date, Ivan has organized 17 evenings of discussion led by neuroscientists, geneticists, ecologists, and physicists as well as historians, artists, and even a poet familiar to LPR, Michael Salcman. And people are showing up in droves at the Busboys and Poets at 5th & K to receive that revelation.

The first science cafés started in the 1990s in England and France where scientists and the public started to share concerns about social issues arising out of modern technology such as genetically modified foods and mad cow disease. Neither party felt that the government or media could be trusted to give an accurate picture of controversial developments of the day. The DC Science Café is driven by a similar desire for direct access to scientific experts for an open, less mediated discourse.

I was curious to learn what that discourse would look like. Ivan walks me through the evening, which begins at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. A slideshow of science imagery pulled from the night’s topic as well as Ivan’s book, Super Vision, serves as a backdrop while the audience socializes with a themed drink. After a half hour, Ivan opens the mic up to the audience, inviting participants to take a minute to share a creative project of their own. That night’s discussion leader then takes the mic and gives a twenty to thirty minute presentation. The entirety of the remaining time (roughly an hour) is dedicated to active discussion. After the event concludes, no one seems to want to leave, with large crowds forming around the discussion leader and elsewhere, continuing to question, connect, and talk.

A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic by Zach Weiner.

But this is only the structural element of what the discourse looks like. What language would be used? How would the metaphors common in scientific lexicon play between experts and audience?

Writers and scientists face similar problems in this regard. Figurative language is symbolic and abstract, and oftentimes the communicating parties don’t share the common background upon which such language relies. Depending on the science (or the writing), these abstractions may be symbolic of phenomena that are already themselves abstract and inaccessible, such as chemical bonding or black holes.

The key, Ivan says, is in becoming “comfortable with the compromise in rigor and specificity” and “valuing the feel it gives to the layperson.” This sounds familiar to me as a writer; at some point I had to make my peace with post-modernism.

As a scientist who, like Ivan, ultimately desires the audience coming to value the “scientific way of knowing,” I’ve stayed restless. My allegiance still lies with the devil in the details, and it’s hard for me to trust that I’ve communicated that scientific way of knowing unless the metaphors are somehow made transparent.

It is difficult for me to reconcile my two different reactions to what is essentially the same problem: trusting your audience to find meaning and value in your expression, even if it is not precisely the meaning and value you intended. Is it possible that some of the hostile contemporary public perceptions of science and literature are shaped by a lack of this trust? Are scientists and writers perceived as refusing to set aside the inscrutable particulars of their business and commit to engaging with audiences in whatever form the conversation must take?

Ivan’s efforts have proven quite successful. He noted he sometimes must intervene during discussion to define jargon used by discussion leaders or to recast questions asked by audience members, but discussion leaders like Steve Rolston noted, “A number of people stopped by to thank me and comment about how interesting the topic [quantum mechanics] was.” Evidently participants have been undeterred by technical difficulty; some audience members have only missed one or two events out of the entire series. Discussion leaders also feel like the Café is filling a unique niche. Poet and biologist, Myra Sklarew (who will be interviewed in our upcoming Science issue), said, “It was a great pleasure to finally address an aspect of poetry that had always been part of the way I saw the world and to do so with an audience informed and curious about science.”

It seems that if my questions are on the mark, then Ivan, Myra, and all the audience members and discussion leaders at the DC Science Café are finding great success in building a more complete and open discussion of science and our society.

If you’re interested in the DC Science Café, visit their website or view this video  from the Joint Quantum Institute at University of Maryland, who filmed physicist Steve Rolston’s night at the Café (the discussion portion is in a separate video). The next Café will be held Monday, September 30th (more details here).